Why Democrats Push Health Care, Even if it Kills Them

Byron York
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Posted: Dec 21, 2009 2:03 PM
To some observers, the Democrats' race to pass national health care seems irrational -- even suicidal. Don't party leaders understand how much the public opposes the bills currently on the table? Don't they know that voters are likely to take their revenge at the polls next year? Given that, why do they keep rushing ahead?

Just look at the RealClearPolitics average of polls, which shows that Americans oppose the national health care bills currently on the table by a margin of 53 percent to 38 percent. That's not just one poll that might tilt right or left, it's an average of several polls by several pollsters. And the margin of opposition seems to be growing, not diminishing. And yet Democrats seem determined to defy public opinion. Why?

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I put the question to a Democratic strategist who asked to remain anonymous. Yes, Democrats certainly understand that voters don't like the current bills, he told me, and they are fully aware they will probably pay a price next year. But they have found a way to view going ahead anyway as the logical thing to do, at least in their eyes.

You have to look at the issue from three different Democratic perspectives: the House of Representatives, the White House and the Senate.

"In the House, the view of [California Rep. Henry] Waxman and [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi is that we've waited two generations to get health care passed, and the 20 or 40 members of Congress who are going to lose their seats as a result are transitional players at best," he said. "This is something the party has wanted since Franklin Roosevelt." In this view, losses are just the price of doing something great and historic. (The strategist also noted that it's easy for Waxman and Pelosi to say that, since they come from safely liberal districts.)

"At the White House, the picture is slightly different," he continued. "Their view is, 'We're all in on this, totally committed, and we don't have to run for re-election next year. There will never be a better time to do it than now.'"

"And in the Senate, they look at the most vulnerable Democrats -- like [Christopher] Dodd and [Majority Leader Harry] Reid -- and say those vulnerabilities will probably not change whether health care reform passes or fails. So in that view, if they pass reform, Democrats will lose the same number of seats they were going to lose before."

All those scenarios have a certain logic (even if the Senate calculation undercounts the number of potentially vulnerable Democrats). But each scenario is premised on passing an unpopular bill that hurts the party. Even if there's a strategic rationale for doing it, why are Democrats dead-set on hurting themselves?

"Because they think they know what's best for the public," the strategist said. "They think the facts are being distorted and the public's being told a story that is not entirely true, and that they are in Congress to be leaders. And they are going to make the decision because Goddammit, it's good for the public."

Of course, going forward has turned out to be harder than many Democrats thought. And now, with various proposals lying wrecked along the road, the true believers are practicing what the strategist calls "principled damage control."

But still, does it make sense? In the end, perhaps the most compelling explanation for Democratic behavior is that they are simply in too deep to do anything else. "Once you've gone this far, what is the cost of failure?" asks the strategist.

At that point -- Republicans will love this -- he compared congressional Democrats with robbers who have passed the point of no return in deciding to hold up a bank. Whatever they do, they're guilty of something. "They're in the bank, they've got their guns out. They can run outside with no money, or they can stick it out, go through the gunfight, and get away with the money."

That's it. Democrats are all in. They're going through with it. Even if it kills them.